Sunday, August 24, 2008

One More Post On This Topic And I'll Shut Up

Probably. Unless I change my mind.

Way down in the comment trail (on my original question about writing someone else's book), Emma Darwin observed there would be a difference in impact on your real writing depending on whether you could knock it off in one six-weeker, like Faulks, or whether you had to spend most of the year churning out a half-dozen Mills & Boon Harlequin romance novels. That's a salient point.

But, then, who knows? One probably wouldn't like to find out such a thing, but perhaps one would find the world of Mills & Boon to be where one's talents really bloomed. (I, for one, always worried that if I ever discovered what I was 'supposed to do with my life,' that it would turn out to be something I didn't respect. Even harboring such thoughts says something peculiar about me, but I try not to think about it. Yeah, sure, the unexamined life isn't worth living, but there's no reason to get carried away wit the whole thing.)

All this put me in mind of the rather strange case of Robert Graves. Today Graves is remembered, and still admired, for his novels, especially the pair of Claudius novels. But Graves himself viewed his novels as potboilers, paid hackwork he tossed off to support his real and lasting art, his poetry.

Now there's a sweet irony. Today, Graves' poetry is hardly remembered, and his novels are his lasting legacy.

(I'm putting my hands over my ears so I don't have to hear the outraged screams from aficianados of his poetry. On the other hand, there can't be all that many, can there?)


Roger Morris said...

Hi David, interesting series of posts. At the moment I'm focusing on writing without the distraction of the day job - whether this will be sustainable is another matter. I'm looking at it as a sabbatical while I get the current WIP knocked into shape. But then my current WIP would probably count as 'hack work', because I have picked up someone else's character and world and found myself in the situation of having to write a series of crime novels. I never thought I would be in this position. Even though I am using a character invented by someone else, I do still think of them as my books. I am re-imagining Dostoevsky's world, rather than simply taking it without using my imagination. That seems to be the kind of challenge that appeals to me as a writer.

As you know, my day job has always been as an advertising copywriter, which in many ways was ideal. It was relatively well-paid and - at least when I got it down to 3 days a week - seemed to leave me enough time to do my own writing. In fact, it was useful having that on-going necessity to write against. Now that I don't have a day job, I find I think I have much more time than I really do. I waste a lot of it.

Thanks for your post by the way. I've been on holiday. I shall try to put something on the blog before too long, but I still have a week of the kids at home to contend with. Oh yes, I forgot, I do have a dayjob. Househusband and daddy daycare.

Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

I had a lecturer at university who tried writing a Mills and Boon novel and said it was harder than writing her own work. Bloody hard as it turns out. Apparently there’s a Mills and Boon guide the size of a doorstop detailing what you can and cannot write in a Mills and Boon epic.

In the case of diverted writing, like Graves, you can probably count JK Rowling into the argument. After all, it's reputed that Rowling wrote the Harry Potter stories as her adult stories were paying the bills (in other words, she couldn’t sell her adult novels, but Harry P turned out alright - but would you class HP as hack work?). Stephen King is another writer who didn’t start out writing what he’s famous for - he started writing westerns but that didn’t work out so well. Hence Carrie and the slew of short stories that preceded it.

As for me… Well, I started out writing horror and dark fantasy stories (my first was an urban horror that was written before “urban horror” was even coined way back in the early 1990s), but it didn’t work out for me and so I thought of The Secret War. It was never my intention to become a historical fantasist, and I’m not sure it still is, but it’s certainly where I’m writing now.

I guess it’s all subjective. One writer’s hack-work can be seen by other writers and readers as genius. I mean how many potential children’s writers are there, looking at Rowling and thinking Harry Potter is literarily the grail of childrens books? I’d also say that more “hack-work” goes on to become a best seller than many literary novels. That may rile the literary crowd, but hey, writers can’t live on fresh air…

David Isaak said...

Hi, Roger--

Well, you couldn't have done any better with the Porfiry series if you had planned it this way. But the idea of re-employing Dostoyevsky's detective was your own, so, sorry--I don't think it really qualifies as work for hire or hack-work; it's something you yourself dreamed up.

It must be interesting , though, to find oneself committed to a an entire series you'd never really expected!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

I suspect the lecturer's Mills and Boon experience isn't all that uncommon. It's easy to look at something and assume that because it's formulaic that it must be easy.

I'm beginning to think that nothing in writing is easy.

But your anecdotes about the paths of other writers (and about your own path) are interesting. Somewhere someone must have decided what they wanted do and set out and achieved exactly what they planned...but most of us seem to be hacking (no pun intended) our way through the jungle without map or compass.

Oh, well. I suppose it makes for a better story than if things go as planned.

Anonymous said...

M&B fans say that even within what we'd think of as a really tight formula they still vary hugely in how fresh and original they are, which I can believe. I have writer friends who write for the childrens' equivalents, Animal Ark and the like, and I hugely respect the craft that goes into writing for series like that: it looks easy to do, but it's not at all easy to do well. The ones for whom it works manage to keep the voice for that work separate from the voice for their 'own' books: after all, taking on different voices is a main professional skill of all of us. It would be interesting to know if it's easier to maintain two different writing heads, as it were, if the difference between the two is very large, or very small.

In fact, like a surprising number of writers, (as they'll admit when you do) I started writing by trying to write a Mills & Boon, and discovered the old truth that you can't write what you don't read. I didn't know much about writing at that stage, but I had the sense to realise that for me the answer wasn't to go and read a whole lot of M&B, but to let the writing go in the direction it clearly wanted to, away from the formula and into something else.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

Back when I used to dabble in musical composition, I often came across novel mucial motifs when I was trying to pick out a well-known tune. So I know what you mean when you talk about setting out to write one sort of thing and realizing that the current of your own temperament is carrying you off in another direction.

As to whether it is easier to write in two closely related voices or two dissimilar voices--I've never heard anyone say anything on on the topic. For me, I suspect two closely related voices would be harder, as I think they would tend to mingle...but I'm not sure!